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Komei Bekki

How do you say Souzou in English?

The final English rendering of Amy Knight's essay on Wellcome Collection's Souzou show

This is the third in a series of articles based on Wellcome Collection's show of Japanese outsider art, Souzou. Taking Amy Knight's illuminating essay on the show, we translated it into Japanese, and into a video.  Here's the final rendering – a Japanese to English translation by Kozo Matsuzawa: 

Souzou” is a difficult word to define. It is due to the fact that there are two different spellings for Souzou in Japanese. They both are pronounced Souzou but one means “Creation” whilst the meaning of the other’s is “Imagination”. On both cases, however, the word Souzou embodies and generates great energy out of nothing. It is also best to avoid direct translation of Souzou into English because it would not make any sense as there is no term to which it is equivalent of. But then again Souzou used in the title of an exhibition currently held at Wellcome Collection has a significant meaning and could act as a trigger that can change people’s perception of Outsider Art, the first ever show of the Japanese art of its kind in the UK. 

The term Outsider Art derives from slight mistranslation and the name therefore sounds a bit muddled. It came from Roger Cardinal, the British art critic, in 1970s. It was his take of French Art Brut and was a term used to imply creation without restriction, positive mismatch and rawness. Art Brut literally means ‘uncooked’, raw art. According to Jean Dubuffet, Art Brut is a term coined by the artist himself in the 1940s. It is a culture where creation brings about realism and, in short, it is an expression used for the art which manages to avoid being synchronised with the mainstream art. Dubuffet asserted: “In relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade”. 

The term Outsider Art has more flexibility and is used more broadly than Art Brut, of which expression was reserved for those works produced by children and prisoners in the mid-twenties. According to Dubuffet, Outsider Art means artwork created by and expression of artists whose insides is untainted and pure. Or at least it is recognised as such. Outsider Art is a by-product of the linguistic transition and is controversial as it gets mentioned by artists who have gone over the boundaries of the systematised or conventional art scenes. Albeit vague and generic term this may be, it could be categorise all creators who are candid and have style of their own but at the edge of our society into this group. 

Because there is no foundation to taxonomy in this area of art, it tends to stumble when explained. In order to define it, there have been a number of names considered for this action to produce. However, these names would emphasise resistance towards defining of the art; name would merely indicate the scope of dubious interpretation of visual understanding of the art.

Outsider Art, the strange synonymous, is full of historic imagination of romantic ideas of social alienation. As it can be seen prominently in Duchamp’s Fountain in 1917, artists at the time were looking to overthrow the model that had been established in the art world prior to their emergence; the artwork featuring the psychiatric patient became fascination of the early twenties modernism. 

One of the foundations of the anti-art movement, Dada, which Duchamp was also involved in, challenged the relationship between art and commercial value, and was raw and instinctive in practice. The relentless and exquisite drawings by the long-term psychiatric patient, Adolf Wölfli, became known among the art community after after a doctor at his clinic in Switzerland published a book about his work, A Psychiatric Patient as Artist, in 1921. The purity aspect of Outsider started to become appreciated in the modernist minds and it was interpreted that artists were seeking the truth and attempted to find themselves by contacting the “other”.  

The idea of the instinctive work created by untrained individual without taking into account of the audience means it puts emphasis on artwork produced by these artists and their analytical minds; most of Outsider Art exhibitions are made up with this approach in mind. Nevertheless, in both cases, Souzou focuses on the Creation rather than the Creator and this indeed is the same notion taken and used for the foundation of the exhibition at Wellcome Collection. Shamita Sharmacharja, the curator of the exhibition took un-biographical approach by stressing objects and objectivity instead of emphasising the identity of each artist. In this exhibition, it is most important to appeal to the punters by preceding the image; artists’ physiological and social states are only mentioned very subtly and these are all secondary.  

Despite these artworks may have been produced individually, they are coordinated collectively as to how they are displayed. The exhibition is divided by common themes and is organised by the similarities found during the thought process of each artwork, which became clear thanks to the broader context of art tradition. Fantastical and inventive creation, dreamy and ambiguous silhouette, excessively worked textiles and complex numerical codes… They all are introduced as individual concept in order to generate and enhance the new and attractive visual networks and essences.     

The first path to discover the exhibition is the section called “Language”, where most of artists are posed a problem. Here, concepts usually are expressed linguistically that, instead of words, you will find pictorial codes. Letters in names are transformed into decorations and codes; the colour and movements are the indicator of strength of their feeling; hieroglyphic characters replace diary writing. In the next section, “Production”, you will find artwork of which material used is all alternative. You will find the wall hangings embroidered with threads of which colours are unattractive and beside it there are an army of small statues made out of bright, metallic rubbish bin liners tied together. 

Many of the artworks displayed at the exhibition have continuous and repetitive relationship that creation of the works can serve as a kind of therapeutic process for these artists. There are a number of intuitive clay heads sculpted in the artist’s mouth and/or hands – these are covered in several bulging eyes. Eyes are traditionally perceived as a symbol of consciousness and inner vision that in the past they were often used as talismanic charms. And there are heaps of those found in the glass case display. These little personified creations have dramatic double shadows over a large white platform and it looks as though they are relics of the ancient idols discovered from a lost civilisation. The place is sort of overlooked by some dreary paintings in which there are eyes gazing at you which also look like a massive mouth opening, like a disc with empty blackness in the middle. 

In the room of “Possibility”, rows of numbers packed tightly in a notebook are found and introduced as calculations of the possible journeys which could be made on the subways of Tokyo. Eternity and infinity potential is repeatedly found on the giant paper scroll and other areas, which have full of complex and detailed drawings. It is a map that the artist half imagined and put together in order to express figuratively and abstractly of all cities across the globe as the artist discovered information and images through sources such online and in newspapers. The work was carried out from right to left. And the blank roll of paper on the left hand side it indicates that the project can be continued for as long as possible. 

Whilst the animals and fashion models taken out from advertisements and magazines are the main focal point for drawings in “Representation”, in the “Relationships” arena there are a series of drawings which are highly sexual, where women’s strong eyes pierce through the audience stare which reminds Egon Schile’s touch that is also fierce and dense pencil marks with dark backgrounds. Here, you can also find intense depiction of mutate female organs, with strangely feminine vagina which produces fluid in the somewhat dystopian body scene. Eyes are avoided and the depiction replaces the lack of circulation of pigment. 

Whilst such artworks may derive from the most physiological part of their inner self, their work which uses society and popular culture sweeps the perception of Outsider Artists being overly exclusive and introvert and this is another aspect that confuses the term, Outsider Art, yet again. From mimesis to slight influence, you can always see it in certain degree that these artists are influenced by the outside world – it could be oil paintings that have the historical and cultural Japanese reference such as Geisha or Mt Fuji, cotemporary animation inspired models and/or classic, old school movie posters.  

In most cases, the work of artists’ who are no longer alive at Outsider Art exhibitions. It is simply because their artworks are discovered after their death. However, the exhibition this time is different as artists are well known and they are all living and working today. All people are involved in institutions of Japanese social welfare in one way or the other. Artworks exhibited usually have broader implication since it can depend on the approach, methods and/or medium, you can sometimes see formal and conceptual paths appearing unexpectedly. Extremely bright shade of blue like Yves Klein blue, the colour is repeatedly artificially produced and coincidently came up as a consequence. Somewhat philosophical and unearthly is the colour blue and it is a mystery as to why it is a transcended signal that humans are attracted.  

Renaissance physician and occultist Paracelsus talked about innate natural light. He argues the inner truth may be reached by recognising instinct, dream and imagination. “As the light of Nature cannot speak, it buildeth shapes in sleep.” It is a mysterious reference that there is an untouched inner knowledge within your unconscious mind. This was a topic that preoccupied the psychologists in the West in 19t and early 20th centuries but it also has influenced the contemporary thought. The historical fascination to the Outsider concept is similar to that of nostalgic fondness towards foreign culture.  In the 19th century, the Europeans imagined about different cultures strangely but warmly.  

It is just one restricted idea but there is a universal appeal to mystery and this is because we could never understand it. It is because that there is this otherness image we can connect the unknown but fascinating essence to art itself. Why? Because to understand is to close the possibility. Conversely, it means that if you do not understand then you remain open to paths to possibility. 

Souzou: Outsider Art From Japan is open now at Wellcome Collection in London